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Drawing comics together

A comic characters says that it was your idea.

A comic character responds that it didn't think the other
character will do it.

You like drawing, right?”

That was my opening line when I approached a few friends and colleagues almost a year ago. I wanted to get back to drawing on regular basis. I also wanted to improve my storytelling skills. Drawing comics seemed like a good way of combining both, but it could be even better if done in an excellent company that keeps you accountable and helps you improve. The four of us sat together, and I explained that the current skill doesn’t matter and the commitment is flexible. We were all in.

An octopus sitting on a throne.

The effort turns out to be tons of fun. The most significant challenge is to coordinate people, who have many other commitments, to work on a hobby project and not to block each other. I’m going to share how we’re doing it so you can try drawing with your friends too.

A comic character is teleported to an unknown location.

A gorilla and a bird are flying a spaceship and talking.

Many comic characters are preparing for the final showdown.

The system

  • There are as many stories as there are people. We started as four people, so each person started one story.
  • Every week, each story is randomly assigned to a person. The same story can’t be assigned to the same person twice in a row.
  • Each person draws at least one comic panel for their story. However, they can draw as many panels as they want which is often necessary if a person has a specific sequence of events in mind.

Here is how a possible schedule looks like:

A comic drawing schedule: four columns for each story with
randomized order of people who draw.

The system has some nice properties:

  • Everyone draws in parallel and that means people don’t have to wait for someone to finish their part.
  • It’s OK to skip now and then, so vacation and unplanned life events can be attended without breaking the flow. The next person simply continues where the comic left off.
  • People have different perspectives, so stories tend to evolve in unexpected and exciting directions.
  • The randomized schedule prevents the same people drawing in the same order.

Constraints

Comics lend themselves to using many different visual techniques: panel size and sequence, drawing style and skill, hand-lettering or using typefaces, and many other variables. If each subsequent panel in a comic were significantly different from the previous, the comic would be extremely hard to read.

To keep variability at the level at which people with different drawing skills, techniques, and goals feel comfortable, we decided to add one constraint: each panel in a comic must be a square and must be black and white. We can make traditional or digital drawings, big or small, but the result has to be in precisely that format. The constraint has helped us produce work that is visually consistent but also inclusive because it’s easy to participate (no need for a lot of fancy tools).

A traditional drawing on paper.

A character throws a ball of energy and destroys a monster.

A character yells to watch out.

Thoughts and tips from Piotr

Piotr is one of the people drawing comics with me. Some time ago he wrote down seven valuable insights and tips that I’m sharing here:

  1. This is the most successful collaboration I’ve ever taken part in. And that’s because it has the right set of constraints.
    A) Style: Black and white style in the square format strikes the perfect balance between simplicity and creativity.
    B) Workload: I draw more panels or more complex ones when I have time. Otherwise, I just draw the required panel, and I’m done. This allows me to almost never skip the deadline and have fun at the same time.
  2. Every panel has to move the story forward but not open too many potential storylines.
  3. When drawing a new panel, go back and review the story to catch open threads and check if the new panel fits in. Keep in mind a person coming next. Draw a panel that is open enough for them to continue the story.
  4. Sometimes I plant words or details into panels that I’d like to develop later. They’re small and work in the current context and don’t affect the story negatively if not developed later.
  5. Matching the style of other participants gives the comic visual consistency but should not limit creativity and should not be the aim of the project. Embrace diversity. Due to different styles, the story should be given more care to bring consistency to the comic. Try to match how characters speak and behave.
  6. Look for opportunities to close a story in order to avoid a comic that drags itself forever. Call out to others that you intend to close it if you have an idea.
  7. What excites me the most is seeing what new turn a story has taken and then come up with ideas on how I should I take it from there. It’s like a treasure hunt with an old map.

A search party is entering a portal.

A search party is exiting a portal.

Two robots are having a conversation about human slaves.

A robot is going through a portal.

I hope the imagery and system inspired you, and that you’ll give drawing comics with you friends a try. I promise you it’s a lot of fun.


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